Healthy Arrivals

Malaysia

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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For Malaysia's new tourism minister, recent returns on the country's aggressive marketing campaign have come as a great bonus - plus, whilst the figures are healthy, the plan is that the visitors will be too.



Few can have missed Malaysia's international tourism campaign over the last year, a factor evident in some record-breaking arrivals figures. The top month for 2005 was November, which saw 1.43m visitors - a figure which broke all previous records and was an impressive 7.7% higher than November 2004.



This is good news for the economy, since the industry is the country's second-largest revenue earner after the electronics-dominated manufacturing sector. In terms of cash, the predicted 17.6m visitors for 2006 are expected to bring in a hefty RM35.2bn ($9.46bn).



Meanwhile, although final consolidated figures have not been released for 2005, it seems likely that the annual target of 16.45m was reached.



The largest growth has come from Middle Eastern visitors, largely from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. Breaking down the figures, UAE arrivals increased over 309% in 2005, year-on-year, while Saudi Arabian arrivals were up 281.9%.



Yet while arrivals from these countries may have grown the most, in terms of absolute numbers, they are still a long way from being the bread and butter of the industry. The total number of UAE citizens who visited in 2005 was 1069, and from Saudi Arabia 2486.



Although showing less growth, more arrivals came from India, which sent some 20,687 people, Australia, with 12,162, and South Korea, with 14,209 arrivals.



Malaysia's immediate neighbours were the out and out winners in terms of visitor numbers though, with Singaporeans leading the pack and registering 8.79m visits, while 1.73m Thais visited and 896,330 Indonesians.



What these visitors did when they arrived also seems to be diversifying. The government's tourism strategy has focused on making the market deeper as well as broader, an approach that attempts to build on some existing strengths as well - not the least of which is the emerging trend for health tourism.



This niche travel sector has grown globally in recent years with a widening availability of quality health care at competitive rates in different countries.



Malaysia has therefore been attempting to establish a name for itself as a provider of high-quality, comprehensive services in all disciplines, including plastic and cosmetic surgery, orthopaedic surgery, paediatrics, ophthalmology, and cardiology.



These services come at very competitive prices when compared to the costs of the same treatment in the West, and even countries closer to home.



In 2003 102,946 foreign nationals (excluding expatriates in Malaysia) were patients in Malaysia's private hospitals for non-emergency treatment. This translated into revenue of RM58.9m ($15.83m).



By the following year, the number of patients had grown to 174,189, bringing RM104.98m ($28.22m) in revenue to private hospitals. Last year saw further growth to 232,161 patients and an impressive RM150.92 ($40.57m) in medical receipts for treatment.



Based on this, the perhaps optimistic target has been set at RM2.2bn ($591m at current prices) from health tourism by 2010.



With such high expectations, the sector is benefiting from more government support. At the same time, the private sector is also in on the act. One other recent move by an industry group was the establishment of an online health tourism portal. This resource brings the marketing side together into a single place, whereas it had previously been dealt with individually by the 25 private hospitals named as health tourism destinations by the Ministry of Health.



It's not all about new hips and implants though. The concept of holistic health and wellness as well as hospitality are all addressed in the portal, with a view to bringing together everything needed for travellers, health professionals and tour operators.



The strategy is also part of a more general thrust of government policy to exploit linkages in the economy. Indeed, the health tourism sector is now being addressed directly by a newly created body called the Corporate Policy and Health Industry Unit.



This will cover health tourism and health products as well as sectors like bio-technology, herbal and alternative medicine development, hi-tech medical equipment manufacturing, low-tech medical equipment manufacture and wellness centres, such as spas.



With growth in mind, the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia, the body which hosts the new portal and represents the interests of private hospitals, has been working with government trade and investment promotion bodies to market the nation's facilities overseas.



With Indonesians currently making up most of the arrivals for health tourism - they seek higher quality services than they can find at home - the focus is on regional nations. Singaporeans also arrive in significant numbers, but mostly for diagnostics and not serious operations, which are often covered under Singapore's national health insurance scheme.



British and Australians are also major contributors to health tourism figures, arriving mostly for cosmetic surgery - a market also tagged for aggressive marketing.



Current marketing mechanisms see frequent visits to potential markets and liaison with insurance companies and national health organisations in foreign countries. However, partnering an agency is an increasing trend and one that some in the sector expect to see more of if the growth targets are to be met.



While ordinary tourism arrivals are growing and playing their part in keeping GDP healthy, if the RM2.2bn target is to be met by 2010, it may well be that the nation's hospitals will have as significant a role to play as its hotels.

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